“The Talent Code” Book Review

I thoroughly enjoyed reading The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle. Published in April 2009, Coyle “examines research into myelin, a neural insulator produced when we repeatedly ‘fire a particular circuit’ “; explores ways in which people are motivated to develop their skills, and identifies the winning strategies of master coaches who produce world-class performers and athletes.

Coyle was one of the first researchers to support the benchmark that to produce world-class skill in any area, a person must invest 10,000 hours of deliberate practice in their particular field – music, sports, etc. This research is fascinating and definitely worth examining in regards to helping our students develop their own talent. However, I was extremely interested in the last section dedicated to master coaches.

How do the master coaches pull out the best in their students?

Of the many excellent examples contained in the book, I boiled them down to a few take-aways I want to improve upon in my own teaching.

Concerning famed football coach John Wooden (emphasis, mine):

“He didn’t only tell them what to do: he became what they should do, communicating the goal with gesture, tone, rhythm, and gaze. The signals were targeted, concise, unmissable, and accurate.”

[Researchers of John Wooden] “Gallimore and Tharp recorded and coded 2,326 discrete acts of teaching. Of them, a mere 6.9 percent were compliments. Only 6.6 percent were expressions of displeasure. But 75 percent were pure information: what to do, how to do it, when to intensify an activity. One of Wooden’s most frequent forms of teaching was a three-part instruction where he modeled the right way to do something, showed the incorrect way, and then remodeled the right way.”

“He taught in chunks, using what he called the “whole-part method”—he would teach players an entire move, then break it down to work on its elemental actions. He formulated laws of learning (which might be retitled laws of myelin): explanation, demonstration, imitation, correction, and repetition.Don’t look for the big, quick improvement. Seek the small improvement one day at a time. That’s the only way it happens—and when it happens, it lasts,’ he wrote in The Wisdom of Wooden. “The importance of repetition until automaticity cannot be overstated,” he said in You Haven’t Taught Until They Have Learned, authored by Gallimore and former Wooden player Swen Nater. ‘Repetition is the key to learning.'”

Concerning research of other master teachers:

“[They teach in a] series of short, vivid, high-definition bursts. They never began sentences with “Please, would you” or “Do you think” or “What about;” instead they spoke in short imperatives. “Now do X” was the most common construction; the “you will” was implied.”

“Of the many phrases I heard echoing around the talent hotbeds, one stood out as common to all of them. It was: ‘Good. Okay, now do_____.’ A coach would employ it when a student got the hang of some new move or technique. As soon as the student could accomplish the feat (play that chord, hit that volley), the coach would quickly layer in an added difficulty. Good. Okay, now do it faster. Now do it with the harmony. Small successes were not stopping points but stepping-stones.”

“‘Sixty percent of what you teach applies to everybody,” [Tom Martinez] continued. “The trick is how you get that sixty percent to the person. If I teach you, I’m concerned about what you think and how you think. I want to teach you how to learn in a way that’s right for you. My greatest challenge is not teaching Tom Brady but some guy who can’t do it at all, and getting them to a point where they can. Now that is coaching.'”

Already I have found myself analyzing my teaching in a new light, and I’ve already started incorporating more short coaching-type speech into each lesson. It will be interesting to evaluate the long-term effect this has in the weeks, months and years to come.


Long Recital Pieces for Beginning Piano Students

I love having young students play in recitals. They get the biggest applause, they often have the most family and friends in their cheering section, and usually they are the ones that dress up the most! It’s sad that their time on stage goes by so quickly because their pieces are often short.

Today I want to highlight some long recital pieces for young students. Here are some parameters I keep in mind while searching for appropriate pieces:

  1. The staff reading should be between Bass C – Treble G, sometimes up to Treble A, unless it can be taught by rote
  2. Minimal moving, unless it is the same hand position moved to different registers
  3. Minimal hands together playing
  4. The pieces I like best have B sections, not just one long A section

I timed myself playing these pieces at about the tempo I would imagine a young student to take, so the indicated times are approximate. (Example- 1:09 means one minute, nine seconds)

The parantheses indicate where to find the piece.

Suitable for young beginners – no hands together playing:

  • Gone Fishin’ by June C. Montgomery (sheet music) 1:09 
    • all single notes
    • varies dynamics, tempo and register
  • Fuzzy Baby Bird by Martha Mier (sheet music) :40
    • all single notes
    • charming right hand glissando at end
  • In My Dreams by Jennifer Linn (Hal Leonard Piano Recital Showcase Book 1) :53
    • one F# in right hand
    • musical instructions such as fermata, ritardando, a tempo
    • teacher duet
  • The Minnow by Lynne Cox (Myklas Contest Winners Book 1) 1:03
    • A few slurs
  • Lost Treasure by Mona Rejino (Hal Leonard Piano Recital Showcase Book 1) 1:15
    • minor – great for kids who like the sound of minor tonality
    • teacher duet
  • Rainy Day Play by Carol Klose (Hal Leonard Piano Recital Showcase Book 1) :50
    • Right hand gets to play chord cluster with RH palm slap to imitate splashing in a puddle
    • great use of staccato to imitate raindrops
    • variety of dynamics
    • teacher duet
  • Daily Workout by Robert Donahue ( It’s a Breeze! Book 1) :57
    • nice melody and B section
    • variety of dynamics and tempos
  • The Whale by Lynne Cox (Myklas Contest Winners Book 1) 1:25
    • hands play together once
    • 3/4 meter creates the feeling of a sea chantey
    • loud dynamics – up to fortissimo
    • octave higher for both hands in one section
  • Clown Serenade by John Robert Poe (Myklas Contest Winners Book 1) 1:18
    • RH is in D position
    • legato and staccato
  • Tag-along by Anne Shannon Demarest (sheet music) 1:06
    • a bit more difficult – seconds and thirds in right hand
    • a few Eb and G#
  • Joyful Bells by Jennifer Linn (Hal Leonard Piano Recital Showcase Book 1) 1:22
    • very mature sounding, suitable for older beginners
    • fourths in both hands, fifth in right hand
    • RH in D position
    • beautiful B section imitation bells
    • teacher duet

 Some hands together playing, but minimal or used in a repeating pattern:

  • The Frog by Carolyn Miller :47
    • adorable tune imitating frog jumps
    • left hand jumps over right hand to play treble C
    • variety of touches (legato and staccato) and dynamics
  • The Hiccup Song by Martha Mier :49
    • cute use of accent to imitate hiccups
    • register change in two places
    • left hand plays harmonic intervals for second, third and fifth as an accompaniment to right hand melody
  • Daydreams by Anne Shannon Demarest 1:13
    • hands together, but used in a pattern
    • variety of dynamics and tempos
    • B section is written in the key of G – key signature will need to be taught if student is unfamiliar with the concept
    • pedal in two places
  • Party Cat Parade by Jennifer Linn (Hal Leonard Piano Recital Showcase Book 1) 1:35
    • very cute!
    • teacher duet
  • Dalmatians! by Tom Gerou (DogGone It!) :42
    • variety of touches (legato and staccato) and dynamics
    • cute for a student who loves dogs
    • B section
    • hands together stepping down sections
    • teacher duet
  • Rescue in the Alps by Tom Gerou (DogGone It!) :56
    • variety of touches (legato and staccato) and dynamics
    • cute yodeling B section
    • hands together – hands playing same notes an octave apart in a few places
    • teacher duet

A bit more difficult:

  • Little Flower Girl of Paris by William Gillock – (Accent on Solos Level 2) 1:25
    • waltz pattern with seconds and thirds in both hands, but no hands together playing
    • variety of touches (legato and staccato), dynamics and tempos
    • sounds Parisian
    • some F# in both hands
  • Windflowers by Anne Shannon Demarest (Myklas Contest Winners Book 1) 1:05 (
    • waltz pattern with thirds and fourths in RH
    • some hands together playing
    • Bb in left hand
    • some pedal
  • Day Dreams by William L. Gillock (Blue Ribbon Encyclopedia: Favorite Piano Solos Book 1)1:20
    • beautiful waltz with gorgeous left hand melody
    • right hand seconds and thirds to produce waltz accompaniment
    • left hand over right hand in two places
    • right hand moving an octave up, then two octaves up
    • variety of dynamics and tempos
    • some pedal

These pieces I have taught by rote, and both have been successful beginner recital pieces:

Ocean Spray by Anne Crosby Gaudet -from Fuzzy Beluga 1:03

  • hands together at the beginning of almost every measure
  • wide range between hands
  • register changes
  • black keys only
  • pedal throughout

Bells by Lynn Freeman Olson (Finger Fitness) 1:07

  • no hands together playing
  • wide arm range at same time
  • moving to different registers
  • pedal throughout

These are the books listed in this post:

Below you will find the referenced songs categorized by book.

Myklas Contest Winners Book 1

  • In My Dreams
  • Joyful Bells
  • Lost Treasure
  • Party Cat Parade
  • Rainy Day Play

Hal Leonard Piano Recital Showcase Book 1 Elementary (the pre-staf book is also terrific for young students)

  • The Minnow
  • The Whale
  • Clown Serenade
  • Windflowers

DogGone It! by Tom Gerou

  • Dalmatians!
  • Rescue in the Alps

Accent on Solos Book 2 by William Gillock

  • Little Flower Girl of Paris

Blue Ribbon Encyclopedia

  • Day Dreams

It’s a Breeze! Book 1

  • Daily Workout

The sheet music:

  • Gone Fishin’ by June C. Montgomery
  • Fuzzy Baby Bird by Martha Mier
  • The Hiccup Song by Martha Mier
  • Tag-along by Anne Shannon Demarest
  • Daydreams by Anne Shannon Demarest
  • The Frog by Carolyn Miller

Please feel free to add your thoughts and recommendations!

Happy Teaching Moments (March 2018)

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“I would maintain that thanks are the highest form of thought, and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.” -G.K. Chesterton

Some happy moments in March:

  1. Cleaning out the pencils and highlighters that fell into the piano!20180301_091050
  2. New studio-wide sight reading challenge using Piano Safari sightreading cards
  3. Choosing pieces for the upcoming recital – student’s face lighting up for the song “Something Just Like This” and another student exclaiming “This is fun!” when given a new piece 🙂
  4. Student (upon finding a C chord in a difficult piece of music): “It’s almost too good to be true!” 😃
  5. New bookshelf which makes it so easy to find and access my music
  6. Students who have topped the practice challenge chart twice already this year

Soundtrack (Some of the non-method pieces students are playing):

  1. Fur Elise by Beethoven
  2. Venetian Boat Song Op. 19 No. 6 by Mendelssohn
  3. Prelude in e minor Opus 28, No. 4 by Chopin
  4. Sonatina in CM, Op. 49 No. 1 by Heinrich Lichner
  5. The Entertainer by Scott Joplin
  6. Philip Wesley pieces – especially Dark Night of the Soul and The Approaching Night
  7. Blueberry Girl by Sam Stryke
  8. Timeline Adventure (from Favorite Solos Book 3), select pieces from Celebrated Jazzy Solos Books 2 and 3, Celebration Bells and Dreamscape from Celebrated Lyrical Solos Books 1 and 3
  9. Pieces from Piano Pronto: Above and Beyond, Awakening from Let’s Quest Volume 2
  10. The Fifth Session from Teach Piano Today’s The Beethoven Sessions
  11. Hey There Delilah by Tom Higgenson
  12. All of Me by John Legend
  13. Havana by Camila Cabello
  14. Coldplay – Clocks and Something Just Like This 
  15. Across the Universe by John Lennon and Paul McCartney

Several of these songs are listed in my post Favorite Beautiful Modern Piano Music for Teens

What I’m Playing

Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel – read about it here

What were some of your favorite teaching moments from March?

Different Pathways to One Goal – Teaching Strategies for Chopin’s “Raindrop” Prelude

It’s been very interesting teaching the Prelude In Db by Chopin (“Raindrop” Prelude) to an adult student. The big right hand chords in the c# minor section have been a struggle. Although my student has diligently practiced those chords for several weeks, she still feels as though they are strangers to her. Her comment in the last lesson was that when she sits down to practice each day, the chords look completely foreign to her. Then she practices and they come back to her, only to forget them the next day. Understandably, this is very frustrating to her.

We have been approaching the chords in many different ways:

  1. Just plain reading notes – she reads music very well, but we’ve been focusing on reading intervals and recognizing them at a glance
  2. Keyboard stamp – this has been a great way to reinforce the visual look of the chord on the keys. She can easily see that the outer notes remain the same while the inner notes move chromatically.
  3. Chord of the day – with spring break ahead of us, we decided to concentrate on one chord each day. She gets to choose which chord is highlighted each day. Each time she walks by the piano, she plays the chord. When she is doing other things throughout the day, she pauses to think about the chord and form it on the table, the steering wheel, in the air, etc. Then she chooses a different chord the next day and repeats the process.
  4. Topography – how does the chord actually look beneath your fingers? Where are the white keys? Black keys? After playing the chord -lift your hand away, but keep the same shape – what does your hand look like? Where are your fingers stretched or close together?
  5. Play it musically – I have always found that no matter how many times you drill a section, the first time you play it musically, that section somehow improves. Yes, do the work. Definitely don’t skimp on the drilling, but always come back to a musical interpretation after the drilling. It refreshes your soul, and usually the monster of difficulty lies down in submission to the greater musical sound.

I expressed to my student that none of these practice strategies are “shortcuts”. They are just different pathways to the same goal. The more pathways the better. The more we can creatively approach practice, the better off we are as learners and teachers.


What I’m Playing – Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel

A couple weeks ago I decided to swap out my little studio bookshelf for the larger bookshelves in our loft. Although our family reading books now are crammed into a smaller space, my piano scores are seeing the light of day and I couldn’t be happier. I’ve already been using old forgotten gems in lessons with students. It’s so nice to be able to easily access my music!

One of the forgotten gems I came across was this Urtext edition of Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel’s Ausgewahlte Klavierwerke, roughly translated “Selected Keyboard Works”. The book contains eleven pieces for piano, including two etudes, one nocturne, and two lieder, the genre in which Hensel excelled.

Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel (1805-1847) is a compelling composer, in my opinion. Her first pieces to be published were done so under her brother Felix’s name (these pieces are found in his Opus 8 and 9). Later she was published under her own name, and she herself understood how exceptional it was for a woman composer to be published in the early 1800’s. “And so I have decided to issue my works in print. Bote & Bock have made offers to me the likes of which have perhaps never before been given a dilettante composer of my sex…” Composing was as much a part of her life as being a wife and mother. She found the most success in her piano pieces and songs (lieder), which is understandable considering the extent of her brother Felix’s work in his Songs Without Words. I can imagine the two of them discussing the finer points of composing at family gatherings. 🙂

I have especially enjoyed playing the first Ubungsstuck (meaning Etude) in C Major and the Notturno.

The Ubungsstuck is a terrific etude to practice these skills:

  1. Alterations between thirds and first inversion chords in both hands
  2. Planing first inversion chords
  3. LH Octave scale passages
  4. Circle of fifths LH
  5. Chromatic chordal movement
  6. Double thirds
  7. Strong harmonic modulations
  8. RH C chord inversions

The Notturno is a lovely, lyrical piece in g minor featuring an arpeggiated left hand accompaniment and beautiful melody.

I have smaller hands (I celebrate the fact that I can reach a 9th on the piano), and these pieces fit very easily within the span of my hand.

I would recommend these pieces for advanced students who need to work on a specific technique such as inverted, planing chords (like the Ubungsstuck); or a student wanting to play something a little off the beaten path; or someone who would like to try a piece in the lieder genre.

I’m looking forward to playing more piano pieces by this often-overlooked composer.

One-Minute Flashcard Challenge

In February we ran the one-minute flashcard challenge. I like to run this challenge periodically to do a little check-up on note-naming among my students. February is a good time to do this because it gives an opportunity for the students to earn an extra prize in those long weeks between Christmas and spring break when it seems not much is happening.

This year the flashcard challenge was divided into three levels:

  1. Level 1 – beginning students who have just started learning notes on the staff and do not know them all yet. They are required to name and play only the notes they know in one minute.
  2. Level 2 – students who can name all the notes on the staff, but are not proficient yet. These students are given a minute and a half to name and play all the notes on treble and bass clef.
  3. Level 3 – these are more advanced students who can name and play all the notes on treble and bass clef in one minute or less.

A little note about why I have my students both name and play the note…I have found that while lots of students can easily name the notes, it is quite another thing to be able to locate that note on the piano. And that’s actually the point of learning the notes – being able to play those notes that show up in our music in the right place on the keyboard.

Each student that completed the challenge (and they all did!) was rewarded a prize and signed their name on the white board. Everyone likes to see their own name displayed, and the board creates a sense of community within the studio as students check out who accomplished the challenge.

The record time was 23 seconds (24 cards in 23 seconds!) and was a tie between a competitive brother and sister. This ended up being a lot of fun as I shared with the other students how the brother and sister kept beating each other and asking to try again. A little competition can be a good thing!

Thanks to Susan Paradis for the flashcard download and for the One-Minute Club Cards! I made the cards into stickers using this printer paper and placed them on/in my students’ binders as a reminder of their accomplishment, kind of like a badge. 

Master Class at Colorado University

One of my high school students recently had the opportunity to play for a master class at Colorado University in Boulder. The master class was being taught by several master’s and doctoral students in the program.

My student played the first four pages of Dohnanyi’s Rhapsody in CM, Opus 11, Number 3, which she has only been playing for a few weeks. She played musically and technically well and was quite poised during both the performance and instruction.

The instructor gave her several good tips, including how to jump accurately between the opening octaves and building in a crescendo on the first line.

I love that we live in a collaborating musical community. It is terrific that CU opens its doors to local students to have the opportunity to be coached by a talented teacher, and as a local teacher I feel strongly about supporting our local music college. It was also a great opportunity for my student to catch a small glimpse into the life of a music major and see firsthand what some of the requirements are. She is considering majoring in music, so I was thrilled for her to be on campus mingling with some music students and faculty.